Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has sparked perplexity and scorn by visiting the home town of his country’s most infamous drug lord and greeting the gangster’s mother – despite a plea from his own government for Mexicans to stay indoors.
Mexico’s deputy health minister on Saturday implored the country’s 130 million citizens not to leave home in an “urgent” bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.
But less than 24 hours later López Obrador ignored that advice and journeyed to Badiraguato – the birthplace and former stomping ground of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world-famous narco boss who was last year jailed for life in the United States.
Located in the northern state of Sinaloa, Badiraguato is part of Mexico’s so-called Golden Triangle, a poor and mountainous marijuana- and poppy-growing region long at the heart of the country’s drug trade.
The controversy did not end there.
Video footage that went viral on Sunday evening showed the leftwing populist – who most call Amlo – shaking the hand of El Chapo’s elderly mother, María Consuelo Loera Pérez, as she sat in her car.
“Don’t get out,” Amlo can be heard telling the 92-year-old woman, before adding: “I got your letter.”
Also visible in the footage, putting his arm around Mexico’s president, is a man identified as José Luis González Meza, a Guzmán family representative.
Amlo has been widely criticised for his lackadaisical response to coronavirus, and his outing sparked further anger – with many noting that the visit had coincided with the 30th birthday of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán López.
Last October heavily armed cartel gunmen brought Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacán, to a standstill in order to secure Ovidio’s release after his home was raided by the army.
“It is very hard to understand what the president did today in Badiraguato,” tweeted the Mexican journalist Pascal Beltrán del Río.
Amlo had “failed to keep a healthy distance – in more than one sense”, he added.
Marko Cortés, an opposition leader from the National Action party (Pan), described the meeting as an insult to victims of Mexico’s cartels and members of the armed forces who were risking their lives to tackle them. “You must urgently explain your connection to this family,” Cortés tweeted.
Ioan Grillo, the author of the book El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, said Amlo’s visit was a mistake.
“He needs to be 100% leading the country in the fight against the pandemic. This is a terrible way to distract from it … none of this helps Amlo or the country,” Grillo added.
Amlo, who was making his second visit to Badiraguato since taking power in 2018, has pledged to lift the long-neglected drug-producing region out of poverty.
Writing on Twitter, Mexico’s leader said he visited the Sierra Madre region “to connect with marginalized communities and villages”.
Amlo defended his actions at a press conference in Mexico City on Monday morning dismissing the “scandal” he claimed only Mexican conservatives were making over his encounter with El Chapo’s mother.
“They told me she was there and wanted to greet me so I got out of my truck and greeted her. She’s a 92-year-old woman,” Mexico’s president said.
Corruption was Mexico’s “plague”, Amlo insisted, “not a pensioner who deserves my full respect - whoever her son might be”.
“Sometimes, because it’s my job, I have to give my hand to white-collar criminals” Amlo added. “So how could I not give it to an old lady?”
Mexico’s presidency later published the letter El Chapo’s mother had sent to Amlo on March 20.
In it she lamented being denied a visa to see her son in the United States and pleaded with Amlo – who she called her “brother in Christ” –- to help her visit. “It’s been more than five years since I’ve seen him,” she wrote.
Additional reporting David Agren